Senin, 11 Juli 2011

Boltin' Bucs embrace athleticism

Monday, July 11, 2011

In his first season with Double-A Altoona, Starling Marte is batting .314 with five home runs, 28 RBI and 16 steals, to go with elite defense.

Starling Marte, the Pirates' center field prospect with the scary ceiling, looked like he was momentarily freaked out by the ceiling at Chase Field on Sunday night: It was the second inning of the All-Star Futures Game, and a high, deep drive sent Marte in a full sprint back toward the fence. He looked up, twisted, looked over the other shoulder, tumbled a bit and ... can of corn.

He parked under the ball as if he had set up there all along.

Reminded me of something pitcher Jeff Karstens mentioned the other day in the Pirates' clubhouse: "I'll tell you what: There are some athletes in here."

And Marte isn't even there yet.

Look, it's no coincidence that the Pirates' offense has gone from dull to dynamic since fleet-footed Alex Presley and Chase d'Arnaud arrived, delivering 89 runs in 18 games with that 9-1 clubbing of the Chicago Cubs yesterday at PNC Park. These kids are beating out infield choppers, chasing the extra base on gappers and putting pressure on opposing pitchers and defenses.

Go around the diamond, and there's plenty more: Andrew McCutchen is among the fastest men in baseball. Fellow outfielders Jose Tabata and Xavier Paul fall into a solid second tier. Shortstop Ronny Cedeno is faster than most think. And second baseman Neil Walker has had the all-around-athlete tag since high school.

Call them the Boltin' Bucs.

And call this roster, in my view, a far better fit for PNC Park, and for the model manager Clint Hurdle had in mind back in spring training when he had everyone running rampant.

"We wanted to attack, wanted to push things," Hurdle said. "Now you're starting to see some guys who play that way on talent and on instinct."

Marte oozes both traits: His contact is solid, with the potential for power. His speed meets the scouts' top grade, as evidenced by an eye-popping dash to first base in his second at-bat last night. His arm is so strong that a radar gun this summer in Altoona clocked one of his throws to home plate at 101 mph. And his overall feel for center field has some in management feeling that he could assume the position in Pittsburgh right away.

Yes, ahead of McCutchen.

I asked Marte about that yesterday, and he burst out with a laugh before answering: "Sure, why not?"

A little attitude doesn't hurt, either.

The Pirates' system isn't deep in position-player prospects, to put it kindly, but there are two more in this mold on the horizon with Triple-A Indianapolis: Gorkys Hernandez has an elegance in center field similar to Marte's, and Jordy Mercer is the sharpest defensive shortstop.

It's not nearly enough, but it's at least a sign of management's broader emphasis on physical traits that, unlike most elements in baseball, don't go into slumps.

"We came on board with a goal of improving the overall athleticism within the organization," general manager Neal Huntington said. "But we want to ensure we properly evaluate all attributes."

Fine, but he probably can bump left-handed power off the top of that list.

Remember when PNC Park opened how the Clemente Wall in right field was supposed to define the Pirates' roster-building, how lefty sluggers would be paramount?

I do, because I subscribed to the narrative for years. Not anymore. Brian Giles was the only lefty to take full advantage of that wall. Adam LaRoche didn't do it, even though he was acquired primarily for that. Pedro Alvarez hasn't done it yet.

Moreover, there are those who feel that the closeness of the wall, even though the right foul pole is only 320 feet away, is an illusion. The batter tries to pull, but the 21-foot height of the wall and the sharp angle back to right-center punish him.

Of 1,485 home runs hit since PNC Park opened, 399 have cleared the Clemente Wall, just 27 percent. Sure, there are other factors in play there, but it still comes down to only one quarter of one way of scoring runs. I'm not building an offensive foundation off that.

Give me the speed. Give me a sure thing in an economically imbalanced sport that limits risk. Give me outfielders capable of covering the North Side Notch in left-center. Give me infielders that support a pitch-to-contact staff. But mostly, since offense is more valuable than defense in baseball, give me a lineup laced with aggressiveness, athleticism and attitude.

And oh, yeah, give me Marte taking it all to another level.

Read more: Kovacevic: Boltin' Bucs embrace athleticism - Pittsburgh Tribune-Review

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